Chris Hunter took advantage of his newfound coaching opportunity. Gabby Ceritano/Daily. Buy this photo.

Hunter Dickinson had just scored a career-high 33 points in a win over Michigan State as he walked into his postgame press conference. But when asked about the adjustments he made between the Michigan men’s basketball team’s first game against the Spartans and that night, the sophomore quickly took the attention off himself.

Without hesitation, Dickinson credited Chris Hunter. Minutes later, when asked a similar question, associate head coach Phil Martelli did the same.

Lost in the shuffle of Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s five-game suspension and Martelli’s subsequent ascension to acting head coach, Howard’s absence left an open seat on the bench. Hunter, the Wolverines’ director of basketball operations, was tabbed to fill that third assistant coach position and work with Michigan’s big men — a role Howard typically fulfills. 

For Hunter, who has been on staff since 2014, the temporary elevation was a long time coming.


After four years playing at Michigan, Hunter bounced around professional leagues, from Poland to Belgium to the NBA D League — now the G League — to a brief stint in the NBA. But in 2014, after eight years on the move, it was time to settle down and set his sights on a new goal: becoming a high-major Division I coach.

Around the same time, former Michigan coach John Beilein had an opening to fill on his support staff. While Hunter never played for Beilein, he came highly recommended, and as a Michigan alum with professional experience, he was the perfect choice. After a couple of interviews, Beilein offered Hunter the role of director of program personnel, and he accepted.

“Really bright young man,” Beilein told The Daily. “And after an interview or two, it was a no-brainer because I knew he would connect with our players. He had some experience at Michigan, knew the campus, knew the environment, knew what we’d be looking for, and also, had played professionally.

“… You don’t know how your hires will work out at the time, but it turned out to be a home run for me and my staff and Michigan overall.”

Three years later, Beilein had a few more openings. Assistants Jeff Meyer and Billy Donlon both left the program, leaving him with two critical hires to make. Hunter was under consideration, his goal of becoming a high-major coach — at his alma mater, no less — within reach.

But Beilein went in another direction, bringing in outside hires Luke Yaklich and DeAndre Haynes instead. Hunter, though, was promoted to director of basketball operations.

“Every time we hired someone, it’s not like we hired somebody with a similar resume to him,” Beilein said. “Everybody had been an assistant for several years before we hired them, and he was just breaking in at the time. He understands the patience to this thing. And I think he also understands Michigan’s a pretty good place to be the director of basketball (operations).”

According to Beilein, a director of basketball operations’ privileges were much more limited a decade ago. They could never be on the floor during practices, and weren’t even allowed to be involved in basketball-related decisions.

In Hunter’s time in the position, though, the restrictions have eased. Hunter always has a voice in staff meetings and, over the past couple of years, has been able to take part in practice due to COVID-related rule changes.

“We can have conversations with the coaches and we bring our energy and enthusiasm as far as what goes on in practice and kind of give encouragement and that sort of thing,” Hunter told The Daily. “So on a day to day basis, we’re around as much as the coaches. And then the good thing about that is in our coaches and staff meetings, everybody has a voice, whether you’re an assistant coach, whether you’re the video coordinator, myself, Jay Smith, everybody on staff really has a voice.”

Hunter even got a chance to fill in as an assistant from time to time. During coaching staff changes, he occasionally got to work on the court in practice and on the recruiting trail. He had never served as an assistant during a game, however.

Until three weeks ago.

In the aftermath of the Feb. 20 postgame altercation at Wisconsin, the thought of filling in as an assistant was a distant one for Hunter. His main focus was taking care of all of his players. But he would be remiss to say it didn’t cross his mind.

He found out the next day, beginning a hectic two weeks for Hunter. He still fulfilled all of his normal duties as director of basketball operations, while also taking on the added responsibilities of an assistant coach. That included coaching at practices, assisting Martelli with substitution patterns during games and reinforcing the game plan to players during timeouts.

Hunter was well prepared, though. After all, it wasn’t his first time running drills in practice. And while his in-game responsibilities were expanded, it wasn’t completely unfamiliar territory to him; he’s still on the bench for every game even when he’s not a coach, just with a lesser role.

“It’s been something that’s been pretty similar to what I’ve been experienced for and over my time here,” Hunter said. “Just being around a lot of coaches, understanding what I know and what I do, (it was) pretty easy, pretty seamless to be able to come in there and fit in where I needed to fit in to help out.”

In preparation, Hunter talked to Howard to ensure he maintained consistency in Howard’s absence; he would only occupy the position for two weeks and his job wasn’t to “reinvent the wheel,” as he put it. 

But for the most part, coaching the bigs was just going off his experiences at Michigan and what he knew. Even when he isn’t allowed on the court for practice, he still watches. He studies film, just as the coaches do, and he leans on four years of college playing experience, along with eight years of professional experience.

“When he’s on the court and he’s explaining things to the players, he’s as good as they get,” Beilein said. “And because he played, but some guys can play and they can’t explain it. He can break it down for people.”

His most important experience, though, came last season. COVID-19 rules limited the amount of student managers that were allowed on the court for practice, and teams were allowed to have two additional coaches on the floor instead. So Hunter got an entire season of coaching experience alongside the same staff he worked with in his two-week temporary stint.

“I think last year was definitely a kind of prelude to this opportunity,” Hunter said. “I worked hand in hand with (Howard) and helped him facilitate the things that he wanted to do in practice last year. … Definitely last year, being a part of it day in and day out made it kind of a seamless transition for sure.”

For two weeks, Hunter got to serve as nearly a full-fledged assistant coach. Scout assignments for upcoming opponents were still left to Michigan’s full-time assistants, but Hunter took on everything else. And for someone whose goal is to become a high-major assistant, that experience is invaluable.

As Beilein alluded to when discussing the hires of Yaklich and Haynes, high-major programs often look for assistants with prior coaching experience. Hunter’s is very limited, and only in a temporary role. But even though he’s only served as an in-season assistant for two weeks, he now has something he can point to in interviews. He’s building up his resume, preparing for the next call he gets. Maybe it’ll even be Michigan.

“Sometimes when you have up-and-coming guys that are in these various support staff roles, sometimes the knock is that you never coached before — you don’t have the coaching experience,” Hunter said. “So now, being in those positions …  I’ve done everything that you would need to do in those spans to say, ‘Hey, he has experience to do it.’ ”

For Hunter, this two-week stint was just a stepping stone for what he hopes will be a long coaching career. And while the goal right now is to become an assistant, some think he can reach even greater heights.

“He’s a head coach waiting to happen at some point, because he’s got the qualities you look for,” Beilein said. “He’s got a great presence. He can teach. He relates with everyone. 

“I know he has a brilliant future.”